MOUNT PLEASANT, Wis. -- A few months back, Thomas Fliess Jr. was harvesting field corn and soybeans. Now, in the dead of winter, his land has sprouted a bumper crop of greens.
Meet one of the first Foxconn millionaires.
He's a trim 55 (he works out at a gym every morning) with close-cropped hair, a shy smile, five grown daughters and 11 grandchildren. Number 12 is due in July.
Between the kids, the demands of farming some 1,500 acres of owned and rented land, and a part-time job preparing UPS trucks for delivery runs, he stays busy.
And that, he said, is what he plans to keep doing after selling 147 acres of cropland for Foxconn Technology Group, at a price he never dreamed he'd see, and pocketing nearly $7 million.
Fliess is among several property owners who last summer agreed to let go of their Mount Pleasant farmland at $50,000 an acre -- more than five times the going rate in the area pre-Foxconn -- and now stand to walk away with millions.
"I'm too old to start over but too young to retire," he said, laughing.
"Oh yeah, if you wanted to you could, but you know, I've got a big family, too, and I want to help all them out eventually as much as possible.
"And then, what do you do? What do you do if you just quit? You sit there and get old. So I keep on working."
'Don't congratulate me'
It turns out the rich aren't, in fact, that different from you and me. Some, like Fliess, appear to be happy. Others, like his father, who last week received checks totaling $18 million after selling 380 acres for the Foxconn development, are not.
Standing in a "Proud to be a Farmer" T-shirt at the door of the house where he has lived for more than 50 years, a house near ground zero of the immense factory Foxconn plans to build, the elder Thomas Fliess insisted he never wanted to sell. What he wanted, he said, was "to die on this farm and leave it to my kids."
"Don't congratulate me," he ordered a visitor who had remarked on his new status as a multi-millionaire.
"I've (already) got enough money to get me under the sod and that's all I'm interested in," he said. "I'm an old man."
Fliess will turn 83 this week. After a lifetime of farm and factory work, he is so hobbled that he literally bends 45 degrees at the waist when he walks -- which he does with agonizing slowness.
"My back is gone, my leg is gone," he said as he pulled himself up the half-dozen or so stairs to his kitchen landing. "I only had one all my life. ... Got it cut off in a corn binder when I was a kid, 4 years old."
Which didn't stop him much.
"Thirty years I worked at American Motors," he said. "Night shift ... six o'clock in the morning I was up farming. Nobody gave me nothing. I bought it all myself."
The walls and shelves in Fliess's little home office are packed with toy tractors (Internationals mostly -- his preferred brand) and photos of his late wife, Alice, who died in 1997, and of their many descendants.
"We've got 19 grandchildren," he said, "and probably in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 great grandchildren. I don't know."
His desk -- strewn with letters, handwritten notes, a package of crackers and a bag of Bugles -- sits at a south-facing window. Just outside, maybe 15 yards away along Highway H, construction crews are laying a 24-inch water main that will serve Foxconn.
Looking for land
Highway H is to become a divided, four-lane roadway, possibly with bicycle and pedestrian paths on either side. On the current but not yet finalized plans, Fliess' house stands in the way. Also penciled in for what now is his yard is a "gas pressure station."
Fliess' wish to die at home notwithstanding, at some point in the not-too-distant future he'll almost certainly have to move. His plan now is to take his money and buy another farm, not to work it himself -- he hasn't been able to do that for five or six years -- but to leave to his family.
"I need to buy another farm like I need a hole in my head," he said, "but I'll be damned if I'm going to give it all to the government."
His son, while viewing things from a sunnier perspective, has similar plans. In fact, he said, he's already spent "a couple million" of his Foxconn windfall on farmland and plans to buy more.
He was able to find property in Kenosha County for less than $10,000 an acre. Owners closer to his home in Mount Pleasant -- and closer to Foxconn -- want as much as $20,000 an acre, he said.
The younger Fliess said that between the land he sold for Foxconn and land he had rented from his father and others that also is going for the project, he'll lose about half of the 1,500 acres he had been working. His new purchases will help replace that, and he's going to continue farming.
"I'm hoping the next time around is where I get the retirement money," he said.
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